IKEA: the solution to all life’s problems

Yesterday morning, I woke up in my new studio apartment in DC. The room smelled like cardboard. The reason for the stench was the day before, the IKEA store delivered my new life, compactly packaged and priced, to my door. I’ve been sort of a nomad in the last few years, and IKEA fits me as well as Northface fits backpackers in India.

Because some things worked out perfectly (go Muddus Drop-Leaf Table!) and some didn’t, I decided to pay another visit to IKEA, all the way out in the Maryland suburbs. On the train, as I leafed through the New Yorker issue that the previous tenant, a nomad grad student like myself, had left behind, I stumbled on an article: “House Perfect: Is the IKEA ethos comfy or creepy?”  Of course, it was creepy to read about a store while I was on my way to that very store.

The author, Lauren Collins, says that she’s moved eight times since graduating college in nearly as many years, and this Lego for adults was an integral part of her existence. “IKEA can also be Swedish for feeling like you’re never going to grow up,” Collins writes.  “The ease of self-invention that IKEA enables is liberating, but it can be sad to be able to make a life, or to dispose of it, so cheaply.”

Two subway trains, one exhausting bus ride, and a hitchhiking trip on the way back (because the suburban bus had stopped running after four p.m.), I was finally home, hard at work building my colorful castle, at once full of promise yet eerily familiar.

I, too, have moved entirely too much since graduating from college. I’ve welcomed IKEA into my homes on both coasts. The Billy bookcases…

and Lack side tables…

the empire’s most popular products, have always been there to hold my books, drinks, or luggage as I packed up to move yet again. And wherever I go, there’s the promising blue and yellow logo visible from the highway, like an oasis of blond people, smiles and warm meatballs, beckoning me to rebuild my life in one modest swipe of a credit card.

But this time, I found myself not as excited at the prospect of a two-day gestation of a new life. I tried everything to have a cheerful shopping experience. I ate the obligatory meatballs. And then the $1 cinnamon roll. I hopped on the cart and rode on it, grinning, like a schoolgirl along the warehouse floor, wind in my hair. I tried on the various lifestyles of the showroom upstairs: this birch bunk bed is exactly what I’ll have when I vacation in Iceland with my future husband and children. This bar table with mood lighting and striped tablecloth captures my future existence as a high-rolling professional, and that fuzzy rug will complete the picture, perhaps even with a wine stain or two. This is kitchen where my future blond and blue-eyed children (wait, what?) will spill lingonberries on the floor on a wintry Christmas (huh?) morning, and I’ll admonish them in Swedish with poorly imitated anger and feed them pancakes as they unwrap gifts from Jultomten, the Christmas man.

But on this visit, no matter hard I tried, these flights of fancy could simply not elicit the former excitement. The reason was, I’ve seen it all before. I’ve put together countless Billy bookshelves. I smiled back at the stick figure in the wordless assembly manuals. I’ve hammered dozens of nails into various dressers. I’ve bought at least four $1 toilet brushes, perhaps more.

Each time feels like the last time. This is it. My future is about to begin. And the hammer flies faster, and the little hook screwdriver turns a little easier. And then – bam – another move, for the common reasons afflicting all of humanity.

This time, it took extra effort to not reminisce about San Francisco, with identical furniture with my name on it, and about similar pieces that sat out on the curb or in someone’s trunk in New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Manhattan just a few years ago. It’s as if I’m flunking Algebra over and over again, and instead of graduating up to Calculus or something equally distinguished, I’m always held back a year, with the younger kids. The promise held by the colorful cardboard furniture is always just a touch away, yet always unreachable.

But yesterday, upon unpacking, instead of pondering how dispensable our livelihoods have become, I kept expertly driving the nails of my future into Rast’s back, and tightening the screws into the headboard of Leirvik, allowing myself to dream of wondrous adventures to come, pretending it was the first time, and pretending the previous Swedish dream had never happened. And the lingonberry jam and multicolored duvet covers suddenly sparkled back, pretending, too, it’s the first time they saw me.

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